The 4 Stages of Alcoholism – with Vanessa Hilton-Barber


Vanessa is a writer, photographer and wild water swimmer.

Like so many of us, she began drinking in her teens.  That was the beginning of a habit that started off as fun but evolved into something much darker over the years.

In this Episode

  • Vanessa divides her drinking career into phases:

the Fun phase (15-19)
the Social phase (19-30)
the Fairly Desperate phase (30-39)

the I Need to Quit phase (39 onwards)

  • This pattern fits pretty well with the theory that 20 years of regular drinking will result in alcohol dependence
  • If you’d like to hear the science behind that theory then have a listen to my interview with Ken Middleton – episode 23 of Tribe Sober podcast – November 2020
  • Vanessa tried to moderate and did manage to cut down for periods
  • However, she was still binge drinking now and again so the dependence was still there
  • Along with her moderation attempts of course she had some rules
  • She started a rule at University and has kept it going ever since. It was the 3-day rule.  She would never drink more than 3 days in a row
  • However, she realises now that her 3-day rule actually kept her in a cycle of drinking and then withdrawal
  • Here in South Africa, there is a culture of binge drinking at the weekend
  • Vanessa explained that in her office they used to refer to Thursdays as “Steak Knife Thursdays” as everyone was “on edge” waiting to start drinking
  • It was Covid that opened Vanessa’s eyes to the nation’s love affair with alcohol
  • Several alcohol bans meant that many people had to be creative about sourcing their alcohol
  • She described the moment during Covid when she had just one tot of whisky but it released such an intense craving that it made her realise she would have to make a change
  • Vanessa discovered Tribe Sober and loved the support of the international community
  • She did Dry July and loved watching the alcohol-free days stack up on her tracker
  • As she learned more about the harm that alcohol does, she felt more and more motivated to go alcohol-free
  • So she did Sober October but still had periods of binge drinking
  • At the beginning of 2021, Vanessa decided to try coaching – as a member of Tribe Sober she had been offered a free coaching session so decided to take it up
  • She loved her coaching sessions with Lynette and by session 2 she had ditched the booze completely
  • We agreed that Lynette’s philosophy that we must get “comfortable with being uncomfortable” is a powerful one
  • By riding the discomfort and pushing through we will experience emotional growth and grow new neural pathways
  • One of the goals that Vanessa set during an early coaching session was that when she reached her first Soberversary she would share the strategies that had enabled her to quit
  • That’s how her stunning book was born … TOTS which stands for The Other Twelve Steps
  • It is full of gorgeous illustrations which came from the doodles she would make during her coaching sessions – doodles she would develop further as she reflected on her learnings
  • She calls TOTS ‘a string of sparkling gems’ and I couldn’t agree more
  • If you’d like a digital copy of TOTS just email and we’ll send you a copy
  • In TOTS you will find a description of the Hero’s journey along with its transformative challenges
  • Just like the hero we may stumble and fall on our journey but if we keep trying we will succeed
  • Our reward will be the gift of elixirs which will enable us to help others to do what we’ve done
  • Vanessa also refers to the book “The Artists Way” by Julia Cameron in TOTS
  • We agreed that this book can be the key to unlocking our creativity and doing our daily morning pages can be a life-changing habit
  • Vanessa described the benefits of alcohol-free living as exponential but a huge one for her has been the energy
  • Now she no longer has to try to control her drinking and manage the aftereffects she has so much more energy and mental strength
  • This made me think of my interview with William Krause two episodes ago … when he said that redirecting that energy we wasted on controlling alcohol is the key to unlocking the life of our dreams
  • ​Vanessa referred to her coaching sessions as the key – I love the way she describes the power of coaching – she says it’s about “having someone in your story with you”
  • If you’d like to connect directly with Vanessa then you can email her at and
  • If you’d like to experience the power of coaching then join tribe sober – new members are entitled to a coaching session with Lynette
  • Just go to and hit join our tribe


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    This episode is sponsored by the Tribe Sober Membership Program.  If you want to change your relationship with alcohol then sign up today
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The 11 Year Fact

Did you know that the average dependent drinker will struggle alone for 11 years before reaching out for help?

Don’t wait for 11 years – join Tribe Sober today!